VAIL - Vail skier Cesar Hermosillo skied more than 140 days this season, just as he did last season.But this year, he says being out there every day was more about the camaraderie than the conditions.Hermosillo was on both the first and last gondola cars out of the station nearly every day of the season and became part of the trunk in a family tree of riders who joined him along the way.A revolving cast of five to 15 people, the first/last gondola riders made a ritual out of arriving well before that first car departed in the morning and waiting out the last ride up in the afternoons. The crew is a motley one: its members represent a variety of ages, races, genders and equipmentpreferences.But one thing the group does have in common is a love of skiing and snowboarding.Born and raised right here in the Vail Valley, the gregarious Hermosillo quickly became a glue that helped hold the first gondola group together. He saidVail's EpicMix, a social media tool that tracks your vertical feet skied, introduced him to a group of other riders who were as addicted as he was."I spent a lot of the season last year, especially in the beginning, riding by myself," Hermosillo said. "And then EpicMix went live ... For those that have decided to go public with it, it's allowed them to see who else out there is skiing as much as they are."Lo and behold, the EpicMix leaders were also the first chair riders in the mornings.Hermosillo said he was never an early riser, but hedoes remember getting excited about arriving to school early to play four square before class started as a kid at Red Sandstone Elementary School in Vail. He said like four square, his love for skiing started getting him up early and to first chair, even when working until 11 p.m. the night before. But before EpicMix, he mostly rode chair 6 in the mornings and didn't know the people around him."I'm addicted to skiing, and it shows. I feel like other people love skiing, but they're not necessarily addicted. These people that I met at first gondi, this group of people is also addicted. I can count on them to be there at first gondi every day," he said.Logan Opsahl Hopp, another devoted member of the crew, said the group has become more than just ski buddies."The motivation for me to get up and catch that first gondi is the crew I ride up with in the morning," Opsahl Hopp said. "These guys that I ride with, they're like family to me. My family is pretty far away from me, and these guys take care of me, whether it's feeding me or borrowing me a few bucks, they're there for me."At 19 years old, Opsahl Hopp would be the youngest member of that family. The Minnesota native has been here two seasons including this one and plans to stay for a while.And if Opsahl Hopp's the junior, Ralf Pietrowski also just wrapping up his second season at Vail, would be the grand pappy at 71 years old. He skied about 115 days this season and caught 80 or so last gondolas with the crew."It didn't make sense for me to catch first gondola with Cesar and those guys, so I would start at Chair 6," he said. "I caught about 90 or so first chairs there and almost as many last gondolas, unless I had to leave early for an appointment or something."Pietrowski said a highlight of his season was when he caught the first ride up Chair 21, quickly skied down before anyone else had arrived and caught the second chair, too."The lifties at the bottom said 'listen, you're second chair, too,'" he said. "That's something that isn't easy to achieve."Pietrowski has been checking his vertical feet on EpicMix and has accomplished something else that isn't easy to achieve, as well. He has skied more than 3.6 million feet this season."I figured that, with the way the conditions were, it was the ideal time," he said.And just as he enjoys skiing and riding the gondola with the younger guys, Pietrowski and some of the older gondola crew members have become a source of inspiration to Opsahl Hopp and his ilk."I admire these guys," said Opsahl Hopp. "They're so dedicated to the sport, they've been dedicated for years. If I make it that long, I'm going to have four new hips, but I hope I'm shredding, too."Opsahl Hopp, Pietrowski and Hermosillo say they all plan on being back for next season.
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